Leap of Faith
Long before Charles Eames achieved world renown, he received, in 1934, his first major architectural commission in Helena.
The profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration. Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant’s chair. Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.
— Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI, Feb. 22, 2007
THE HUSH THAT DESCENDS upon entering St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Helena-West Helena is not unlike the one felt stepping into many other places of worship: Your breath catches, you become aware of your smallness, and the whispered words “be still” settle over your heart like a lump in your throat. It is unlike the staggering awe engendered by many of the world’s better-known churches, where complex architecture and intricate ornamentation render us wide-eyed and mute with their insistence that it is not the devil in the details, but his opposite. But it is the former kind of hush, the humbler hush, that the architect had in mind when he first began, in 1934, to conceive the structure that sits on Columbia Street, just a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi. That architect was internationally acclaimed designer Charles Eames, and that church—his first major commission, one of two he’d complete in the state—essentially opened the door to Eames becoming Eames.
The story of Catholics in Helena is in some ways the story of Catholics in Arkansas, as it was the Helena area, by way of the Mississippi River, where Catholics first set foot in territory that would eventually be part of the state; Helena-West Helena today has monuments to both the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who came ashore with a group of priests in 1541 (and reportedly celebrated the state’s first Catholic Mass), and the Jesuit missionary Père Marquette, whose 1673 expedition led to the French establishing colonies along the Mississippi that helped spread Catholicism in the area. A little more than two centuries later, an influx of Italian Catholic immigrants, driven to the United States by poverty and political unrest, settled in and around Helena and began to flourish as merchants, peddlers and tradesmen. It is their ancestors who are St. Mary’s parishioners today.
When Fr. Thomas J. Martin was appointed to St. Mary’s in 1925, he inherited a church with significant debt and a building sorely in need of repairs. The existing church had been built in 1888 in a conventional style, with soaring vaulted ceilings under high Gothic arches. Martin, determined that his parishioners should have a new church, focused on paying down the church’s debt and making plans for a new church to be built. His parishioners, loyal and willing supporters, helped raise the $65,000 the new church would require (this was in 1934; it would be nearly $1.2 million in today’s dollars). Inspired perhaps by the tremendous need and sacrifice of the Great Depression, Martin envisioned a church that would provide an unfettered experience of communion with God, one without the distractions of elaborate ornamentation and beautiful paintings. And in Eames, he found an architect who understood, perhaps better than anyone else could at the time, exactly what he was trying to accomplish.
“It’s one of the first structures Charles did after he had a kind of … epiphany, when he was in Mexico during the Depression,” says Eames Demetrios, Eames’ grandson, a filmmaker and the director of the Eames Office in Chicago. After finding architectural work scarce in St. Louis, where in 1930 he had established an office with fellow architect Robert Walsh, Eames went to Mexico in 1933 and for eight months made a living as a painter of portraits, barns—whatever he could find in exchange for a meal or a place to stay. “The people he was with had rich emotional lives, rich cultural lives, and rich spiritual lives,” Demetrios says. “They just happened to be broke. And what he learned from that was that you could live on just about nothing. So therefore, he had to stop using making money as an excuse for doing things that he really didn’t believe in. It really changed his practice.”
Though there’s scant documentation as to how Martin connected with Eames in St. Louis, Demetrios speculates that at the time, St. Louis is where anyone in Arkansas in need of an architect for a special project would have gone. As the largest city in the area, it’s likely that the Missouri city would have had the highest concentration of talented professionals. And once there, it’s likely that many people Martin queried would have told him to go to Eames, who already had a reputation for doing original and innovative work. In retrospect, that Martin’s passion project should have landed in the hands of an architect who had recently committed himself to doing nothing but passion projects seems almost preordained.
“I think one of the reasons it’s so successful as a place,” Demetrios says, “is it’s what I would call a very honest church, a very honest building; it’s very simple.” Austere in its design, simultaneously modern and primitive, it has what Demetrios refers to as a “middle European” feeling. “He once said that the role of the designer is basically that of a good host anticipating the needs of the guest. So that’s something that’s not necessarily about the look; it’s about how it actually works in people’s lives,” Demetrios says. (During those years, the “form follows function” era of modernist design was gaining momentum; Eames had studied one of the philosophy’s champions, Walter Gropius, in Europe.) “Charles was always focused on ‘the big idea.’ You know, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’”
When it was finally unveiled in 1936, the parishioners may have wanted to ask the same question, as the church that Eames, Walsh and Martin conceived represented a dramatic break from what St. Mary’s parishioners were accustomed to (and probably also from what they expected)—particularly in the interior. The unadorned brick walls, broad and interrupted by a handful of narrow stained-glass windows, were painted a warm, dusty rose in a nod to early Christians, who would have had only earth pigments to work with. The ceilings, in dark wood overlaid with beams, are sturdy, rather than airy; simple stations of the cross, carved in dark wood to match the ceiling beams and the pews, ringed the nave. Behind the altar was a simple mural depicting God presenting his son on the cross, flanked by angels and protected by prophets, painted in a style more modernist and abstract than representational. The parishioners’ response to the new church might best be described as mixed, albeit respectfully so: When Martin passed away in 1939, parishioners insisted that he be buried beside the church that he loved so much, pleading with his family in Massachusetts to make it so. But within a couple of years, they had hidden the mural behind a wall-spanning blue velvet curtain and replaced the coordinating stations of the cross with more customary designs, each with a plaque identifying the donor affixed below.
I’M STANDING in the south-side aisle of the church, near the east end of the building, opposite the altar, with Jo Turner, a parishioner since the ’70s and an unofficial spokesperson and booster for the church. “Early Christian churches are built on a Latin cross, always facing east,” she says, practically tripping over her words in her excitement to talk about her church. “This dusty rose is exemplary of early Christian churches,” she continues. “It’s meant to be dull; it’s meant to be reverent. The dark wooden beams are also exemplary. Eames was very … he loved symbolism, and he loved detail. There’s Latin on these beams here and five red marks on either side for Jesus’ five wounds.”
Gazing up at the beams, our eyes land on one of the church’s least primitive and most indisputably beautiful features: the light fixtures. Giant frosted-glass orbs, half-encased in bronze punctuated with stars, they are oriented so that upon entering the church, only the dark side is visible, “symbolizing the world.” When taking communion, drawn by the stars through the dark night of the soul, you reach the altar, and, after receiving the Eucharist, you turn around and see the light. You are bathed in light. Everything is illuminated. It’s hard to believe anyone had ever before or has ever since put as much thought into a hanging lamp as Eames must have into these; they are such a sublime expression of his aesthetic philosophy that it’s hard to look away from them.
When you do look away, it’s best to sit down, as Turner urges me to do, peeling back a faded maroon pew cushion and insisting that I settle against the bare wood. “Lumbar support,” she says, marveling. “This is probably a precursor to his … I mean, he knew how to design.” Indeed, this is the only truly comfortable pew I have ever sat on. The cushion is practically superfluous. Demetrios would refer to this sensibility as “being a good host”—anticipating the needs of the guest, who, in this case, would be expected to sit for long periods of time. Given that some of the Eameses’ most enduring designs would be chairs, yes, it is safe to say that the pews were “probably a precursor.”
Turner’s tour of the church continues with the stained-glass windows, for each of which she can recite the symbols and depictions. Facts and assessments come rushing out as if trying to escape the heat of Turner’s enthusiasm. She is moving from window to window, pointing out different elements like a child in a toy store who wants one of everything she sees. “Eames designed everything. Everything in here has his name on it. He influenced Emil Frei, who did the glass. And he became famous because of the Vatican tapping on his abilities. All the symbolism in these walls, he made up some of it. Emil Frei loved that jewel tone, the reds and blues. The first two are beatitudes … .” Frei came from a family of well-known stained-glass artisans in St. Louis; the family business, founded in 1898, is still in operation today in Missouri. The Frei studio was responsible for the windows of many of this country’s finest and most noteworthy churches; among them is St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. While it may seem unlikely that not one but two artisans involved in the Helena project would both go on to achieve international acclaim, a young architect keeping an eye on local talent would likely have landed on Frei, much in the way Martin probably landed on Eames.
The windows—tall, gracefully slim panels depicting Jesus with figures from both the Old and New Testaments—are indeed jewel-toned and overwhelmingly blue. Also jewel-toned and overwhelmingly blue is the mural, which Turner and I have now reached in our clockwise exploration of the church. Stark, stylized, lacking perspective, the mural, done in a spare Byzantine style by Charles Quest, another St. Louis acquaintance of Eames’, is the complete opposite of what Turner refers to as the “happy, fluffy” Renaissance look—which it’s worth noting would be utterly, comically incongruous here—that people favored at the time the church was built. “The mural was a controversy,” Turner says. “[Eames] didn’t want anything that was pretty, that just glittered. And it’s not pretty at all … but it’s gorgeous in its own historical way.”
As easy as that may be to say from today’s vantage point, what the parishioners of 1936 saw was more hunchback than Notre Dame, and so, around 1940, the curtain went up. And it stayed there until 1970. According to a 2006 article from the Arkansas Catholic, the official publication of the Diocese of Little Rock, when the curtain came down (predicated by what is anyone’s guess), parishioner Annetta Beauchamp was so transfixed that she could barely follow Mass. She hurriedly invited an art history professor from a local college to St. Mary’s to look at the mural. And that was when the third piece of the St. Mary’s trinity was discovered: that the mural was painted by Quest, who in the years since his work in Helena had also become famous, having done murals in public buildings, schools, and churches in St. Louis and elsewhere in the United States. Armed with this newfound historical significance, Beauchamp fought to prevent the mural—additionally blighted by years of water damage that had been taking place unseen behind the curtain—from being painted over and prevailed in a 2-1 parish-wide vote. She then began the work of the mural’s restoration, a process that would continue in fits and starts for 35 years, ultimately to be completed, in 2006, by conservators Wendel and Elizabeth Norton of Norton Arts Inc., a fine-arts restoration company that was at the time based in Little Rock. Beauchamp passed away in 2011, taking many fine points of the church’s history with her.
WHILE IT WOULD SEEM that the beleaguered mural might finally be getting its due, there are still people who are vocally opposed to it. After spending the morning touring the church, Turner and I join a group of women from the parish for a monthly luncheon at the Pillow-Thompson House. The soup has barely been served when one of them pipes up. “I can tell you something about that Byzantine art on the back wall,” she says (that I will not be naming names seems implicit as a precursor to this confession, though I suspect these opinions have been shared publicly before). “When I was growing up, it had a beautiful blue velvet curtain covering it up. And the nuns told us not to look back there because it was evil. … Later, I was told that I am supposed to say, ‘I am not fond of Byzantine art,’ but I always said, ‘I hate that wall,’ because it was ugly. But I wasn’t supposed to say that.” Even Turner can admit that she’s never really liked it but is compelled to appreciate it by its history.
Which sentiment may place her in one of two broad camps of response to the church: Those for whom the history has impacted their appreciation and those for whom it hasn’t. But to suggest any natural sorting among the parishioners would be pure speculation. Turner didn’t grow up in the church—she was married there just after the curtain came down—so perhaps the revelation that not one, not two, but three of the church’s creators had gone on to achieve such acclaim was more influential than it might have been had she not spent her whole life experiencing the church in a less glamorous way. On the other hand, Beauchamp did grow up in the church, and she had the same response.
What’s interesting is that the things that riverboat tourists—national and even international—come to look at first, after they disembark in Helena and look up to see St. Mary’s straight ahead at the end of the street, are some of the same things that some parishioners have struggled to accept, or at the very least accepted with calm indifference. If this were an Onion article, the headline might read: “Artisans of Local Church Achieve World Acclaim; Townspeople Say ‘Meh.’” But it’s not that they don’t care. It’s that the fact that its architect eventually became famous is incidental. Karen Davidson, one of the ladies at the Pillow-Thompson House lunch, put it this way: “I’m proud of the history. But I accept it for my church, not for being all this famous stuff. I hate to make this comparison, but people who live in Los Angeles, with Disney right there—they don’t go there. It’s not personal; this is personal.”
When parishioners share their memories of St. Mary’s, almost nobody speaks of the church’s physical features (though the blue curtain does make regular appearances as a marker of time, particularly when it comes to dating weddings). That is, with the exception of Jimmy and Vensil Kesl, whose father and grandfather were the contractors on the church, builders who came from a line of builders in Czechoslovakia that stretches back to the 10th century. They remember that the hardwood floors were laid over wooden anchors set in poured concrete, and that the ceiling’s wooden beams conceal a steel framework. They remember their father taking a level to the church wall to demonstrate that it was plum. Both brothers grew up to be builders, carrying on the family line, so it seems fitting that their reflections on the church would be structural rather than aesthetic. When I ask them if they remember learning of the church’s significance, they echo Davidson and one another. “We just grew up with it,” says Jimmy. “We didn’t think nothing of it,” adds Vensil.
For the rest of the parishioners, many only one generation removed from immigrants who arrived in Helena by boat and had little more with which to build a community than their shared faith and country of origin, the church was simply where everything happened. They went to church before school every morning and stopped in the parish hall on the way to class for a 10-cent breakfast of hot chocolate and buttered toast. There was the annual Christmas bazaar. There were the nuns with the clickers they’d use to orchestrate children’s movements during Mass. There were dances, weddings, funerals. There are competing versions of events, as is usually case when a group of people reach back through the decades to retrieve an experience they shared but internalized individually; two people proudly claimed that a relative had been the first to marry in the church, and half-dozen reasons were given for Elvis’s ejection from the property after an early-career performance at the parish hall, which for such purposes was known as the Catholic Club: He’d been caught signing girls’ thighs; he’d been caught with a girl wrapped up in a rug, the nuns ran him out, the local boys ran him out, Fr. Keller ran him out.
“Father Martin was a visionary,” Turner says. “He was a risk-taker. He took a major risk building this church in this style in the first place. He gambled on those three guys. They never did another commission together again.” Turner holds one of the original stations of the cross, hauled out of storage, up to the wall. “See the difference it makes?” she says. “It just goes.” What she’s feeling, according to Demetrios, is what the Eameses would have referred to as “way-it-should-be-ness”—all elements in their right place, working in a harmony so complete that the individual components are almost rendered invisible against the whole. But when Turner has suggested to the Rev. Benoit Mukamba, the lead pastor at St. Mary’s, who has been there since 2010, that the original stations should be restored, he has countered with his own version of “way-it-should-be-ness,” reminding her that the current stations are not only what the parishioners want, they were purchased in the name of families whose relatives are still active in the church. Turner understands this, even as she is resigned to it. “It’s like Father Ben says: ‘Jo, this is not a museum.’”